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The Sickly Green River
The Salinas River is one of the most contaminated rivers in the world. Agricultural discharges have turned it into a sickly green soup of nitrates, pesticides, and toxic algae. The pollutants in the river are contaminating Monterey Bay and sickening or killing sea otters, sea lions, and sea birds. New regulations will clean up the pollution -- if agribusiness doesn't gut them. A crucial vote will be taken after a public hearing on March 17 in Watsonville. Environmental Groups are mobilizing support for the new regulations.
Because of agricultural discharges from Salinas Valley farms, the lower Salinas River has been found to have one of the highest levels of nitrates of any river in the world. During the summer, the river is bright green with a thick mat of toxic algae. The fertilizer doesn’t just impair the Salinas River. When the first rain comes in the fall, a huge pulse of sediment and fertilizer flushes out into Monterey Bay. This pulse has been associated with toxic algae blooms that sicken or kill sea otters, sea lions, and sea birds.
The agricultural runoff is also hurting Elkhorn slough. Large parts of the slough have been found to be eutrophic – with high levels of algae and low dissolved oxygen. This is choking out the beds of eelgrass that Bay fish use to spawn. The agricultural runoff is also contaminated with pesticides, which kills tiny zooplankton that are the base of the aquatic food chain. The nitrates and pesticides have also contaminated 28% of the wells in the area, which can sicken farm workers living in small rural communities. One rural community, San Jerardo, had no potable water for years.
Farms have long had blanket waivers from laws governing toxic discharges into streams and rivers. This changed with SB 390, which caused the waivers to sunset in 2003. The Regional Water Quality Control Boards were charged with drafting and implementing new regulations on agricultural discharges. The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board (CCRWQCB), which oversees discharges s along the Central Coast from Santa Cruz County to San Luis Obispo, came up with a set of voluntary regulations in 2004, and farmers were taught “best management practices.” The voluntary system has not been enough to make a difference.
Fortunately, the regulations are revisited every 5 years. For the 2010-2015 period, the CCRWQCB staff drafted a much more protective set of regulations, with actual measured limits on nitrates and other contaminants in waste discharges. There are also penalties for those who continue to violate the standards. Environmental groups have strongly supported the CCRWQCB staff recommendations, which are in danger of being weakened due to pressure from the agricultural community.
Farmers have complained that the new regulations would be expensive to implement – but the fact is that simply putting ditches or rubber dams to intercept runoff, or maintaining the natural vegetation next to rivers and streams would catch most of the runoff and save the rivers, sloughs and Monterey Bay, not to mention the groundwater wells in the area.
There will be a crucial public hearing before the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board on Thursday, March 17, at 8:15 am at the Watsonville Council Chambers, 275 Main St, Watsonville, CA. Environmental groups, including Monterey Coastkeeper, Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, and the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club are mobilizing members of the public to speak out. Contact Deirdre Des Jardins, 831 423-6857, for more information.
Agricultural runoff contains nitrates and pesticides that are triggering huge toxic algae blooms in Pinto Lake, and the Salinas and Pajaro Rivers, which in turn are flowing into Monterey Bay.
Sea otters have been washing up dead on the beach with acute liver failure from eating shellfish poisoned by the toxic algae. The otters are a fragile symbol of the deterioration of our marine environment.
A CRITICAL TURNING POINT FOR THE OTTER AND THE BAY
The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board implements the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Act on the Central Coast. For the first time, the Board is proposing to adopt real, enforceable limits on agricultural nitrate and pesticide runoff into Central Coast rivers. Those limits are an important first step in cleaning up the major rivers flowing into Monterey Bay and ensuring that the National Marine Sanctuary is protected.
Big agribusinessess are trying to gut the proposed regulations. Monterey Coastkeeper, Surfrider, and the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club are calling for people to come to the Regional Water Quality Control Board hearing in Watsonville on March 17 and speak out in support of cleaning up our rivers. It is critical that we show support for the Boards' actions to protect our environment.
WHAT: SPEAK UP FOR CLEAN WATER at Central Coast Water Quality Board meeting
WHERE: Watsonville City Council Chambers, 275 Main Street, Watsonville
WHEN: Thursday, March 17, 8:15 am to 5:30 pm
Park at the parking structure behind City Hall, entered from Rodriguez Street. Pay $5 for an all day permit on the second level then drive to the top level where there is a door to the City Council Chambers.
WHAT TO DO: When you arrive at the hearing, please fill out a speaker slip for ITEM 14. Feel free to make a note if you can't stay all day and write a summary of your comments on the back of the slip.